Where are the Black Classical Composers?

While most boys played games in the streets he was touring Europe. He had become internationally known for his ability to compose for someone so young. It had helped that his father was uniquely positioned to help to guide his son along his musical journey, a world-class musician in his own right. By the age of 30, he had composed some of his greatest works, securing himself not only in the annals of music history but ensuring that his name would forever be synonymous with the word prodigy. His final composition entitled The Magic Flute, premiered a few months before his death.

This was Austria. His name was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The year was 1791.

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (27 January 1756 – 5 December 1791)

I’ve always wondered why, when studying music in school, we never learnt about music from western Africa or the Caribbean during the generally accepted years of western Classical music (1730-1820). We learnt about many male European composers including Beethoven (1770-1827), Schubert (1797-1828), Hayden (1732-1809) and C.P.E Bach (1714-1788). By contrast, the earliest music the Caribbean we learnt about was reggae and ska which originated in Jamaica in the mid-20th century. When we learnt about ‘West African drumming’, we were merely told that these traditions go back hundreds of years. We were never taught about great African or Caribbean musicians from the 18th century, shown their portraits or listened to their music. Why not?

It was almost as though there were no prominent West African or Caribbean musicians or composers at that time. We were taught that many West African cultures rely on oral traditions. Knowledge was rarely written down but was passed on via griots, through music and stories. How we were taught about oral traditions and customs often implied that these people couldn’t write their music down and that they were too primitive to produce anything close to the level of sophistication of Mozart et al. Where are the composers and musicians of West African and Caribbean descent from 1730-1820?

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The Trans-Atlantic slave trade began to wane during this period with Denmark being the first country to ban it in 1803. What we were failed to have been taught was that the very men who were afforded the luxury to compose and develop their musical craft did so partly because of the resources that were being produced by slaves on the other side of the world. As plantations grew in the Caribbean and West Africans were being shipped in their millions across the Atlantic, the European Classical composers were able to compose, tour and receive critical acclaim for their efforts. Knowing that, will a Mozart concerto ever sound the same to you again?

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For peoples of African extraction, oral musical traditions weren’t born out of choice. They were born out of necessity. Timbuktu was a cultural centre of religion and education in the 16th century with Leo Africanus commenting in c.1526 of the West Africans that, ‘It is their habit to wander into town at night between 10 pm and 1 am, playing instruments and dancing.’ With manuscripts in Timbuktu being destroyed due to fires, the pillaging of towns, cities and villages, and millions of Africans being taken away as slaves to the Americas, it’s no wonder why we find very few tangible traces of music being made in Western Africa and the Caribbean running parallel to the celebrated history of European classical music.

As plantations grew in the Caribbean and West Africans were being shipped in their millions across the Atlantic, the European Classical composers were able to compose, tour and receive critical acclaim for their efforts.

People of African extraction that we read about during 1730-1820 such as Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797), Sojourner Truth (1797-1883) and others, are usually brought to our attention because of what they accomplished in the face of adversity rather than what they accomplished out of the luxury of artistic inspiration and expression.

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Joseph Bologne Chevalier de Saint-Georges (December 25, 1745 – June 10, 1799)

Although his father was a musician and he was born near the epicentre of European classical music, Mozart chose to be a musician. He chose to spend almost his entire life writing and performing, with his compositions being safely stored in museums and being recorded by countless performers since the invention of recorded sound. In contrast, the Caribbeans and West Africans we hear about are those who fought against slavery and oppression. We hear of the first doctors, lawyers, nurses and inventors to break colour lines, but rarely musicians. Even exceptions such as John Blanke (fl. 1501-1511), Ignatius Sancho (1729-1780), George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower (1778-1860) and Joseph Bologne Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-1799) had at least one parent who was born a slave.

Many people of African extraction at that time start their stories with struggle. Where are the black classical composers? It’s not that Africans or Caribbeans were too primitive to write their music down. It’s not that oral traditions are the best or most efficient way to keep information accurate. It’s not even that music stopped being made and performed before the abolition of slavery. It’s that while some had the freedom and luxury to write, compose and travel, others were being transported across the world to be sold into slavery, raped, beaten, killed or all of the above.

The date of his birth is uncertain. No-one really knows about his parents. His education is also a topic for debate. Although he was born a slave, he became a free man at the age of 33 and was able to accumulate some semblance of wealth. A decade later, he participated in and became the leader of the largest successful slave revolt in history.

This was Haiti. His name was Toussaint L’Ouverture. The year was 1791.

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Toussaint L’Ouverture (9 May 1743 – 7 April 1803)

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